Picture Quality in the Era of Streaming and No Theaters

A Love Letter to Home Video

At ninety days and counting since the pandemic news broke, it’s getting harder to imagine life back in the outdoors, going to movie theaters and restaurants comfortably. This is leaving a lot of people stuck at home with their own devices as company and entertainment. Movies for me, and a lot of others have been a great source of comfort and insight into where the collective headspace has been these past few months. I’ve enjoyed everything from comedies, zombie films and science fiction, to adorable animated movies that take your mind off everything. There’s a full range of emotion out there right now and our media is certainly reflecting that. Since it’s a great time to analyze the past, I’ve also taken a chance to think about how I watch movies now and some of the concerns I have as a consumer of video going into the future. So let’s break down how things are right now.

For starters, everything is very streaming centered. It’s the most accessible way for most to watch movies at home. Not that I’m anti-platform, but at the same time, there are new problems that come up. Like what if they don’t have the movie you wanna watch? That’s been a big problem for me in the past, as I like a lot of b-movies, foreign films, and indies that are sometimes off the beaten path of your average netflix fan. Even some popular titles from large television networks dissapear from time to time. Another kicker is that not all films on streaming are free despite paying for the platform. Amazon Prime, for example, has now begun charging people for movie rentals as well as the service. Kind of like a pay-per-view channel. Or if HBO started charging by episode in addition to the usual channel package.

Our only alternative to streaming is going back to movie theaters. Those have been empty since March due to Covid-19 outbreaks. Even if they were open, what about the folks at home? They’re still out of luck. So how are we supposed to combat this war on your wallet concerning at-home movies without resorting to a low-res image on a pirated video site? I’ve done this step-by-step process only to be disappointed by a half buffered, drunken, glitchy version of the movie before I turn it off in disgust.

My answer to this problem is Home Video.

I know that seems outdated and stupid, but since the coronavirus, I’ve realized that I still own many DVD’s and VHS tapes. If you don’t have a VCR, most people have a computer or device that can play movies on a disc. After starting to watch a few of them, I realized the picture quality is actually much deeper and darker than on streaming platforms. I first noticed the picture comparison with a few of my scratched dvd’s from years past. After popping in a DVD of Shaun of the Dead that I bought at a now-gone grocery store in my hometown, I noticed it had been damaged somehow. Still, it played about half the movie before crapping out. Now, while I would typically see this as a negative for physical media, it turned out to kickstart this whole experiment. After a quick google search, I found the movie was also on Hulu, and pulled it up on my account to start from where I left off.

Another hard part of streaming. It doesn’t have a scene selection option like the DVD’s of the past used to. Something that became easy about restarting movies when you were forced away from the screen. After finding my place in the movie, I pressed play and immeadiately noticed a difference in picture quality. Not to be a snob, as I’ve never cared about purism like this in any media before, but I couldn’t help but feel a little miffed and ripped off by a cheap version of a movie. When the film was over, I searched for another DVD copy online and found one for about four dollars brand new. It was actually the same release as the one I bought many years ago. If that movie was on Amazon, I could probably rent it for the same price and only have access to a low-res cloud based version for about a day or so.

While this experiment proved fruitful in a quality venture, I also noticed a more intuitive affect between the two films. My DVD copy, for example, was the version I started watching that night, so I became used to the look and feel of the film. But when I switched to the digital version, I noticed my eyes had a physically harder time paying attention to the screen. Since I can’t confirm whether or not that effect is a placebo due to the order in which I saw both versions, I still feel like the streamed version wasn't as attractive to the eyes as the DVD version. Even if CD’s are still digitally burned, I consider the versions on both DVD and Blu-Ray to be considerably higher than a streamed image. Making the sensation surrounding the video quality to be affected in a sensory way. This means most versions of movies we see on streaming are of the same low quality image. So how can I fairly judge the entertainment value of a film at home, if the copy I’m getting isn’t even the real deal?

One exciting thing about seeing a movie in theaters and then six months later buying a home-version is that the quality doesn’t suffer except in the way of environment. That model might have disappeared, but they still sell hard copies of movies like hot cakes. It’s just that more people have access to streaming and see it as the future. Nowadays we might see a movie in theaters, might not, and then ultimately will end up watching it on the little LCD in our living rooms. What’s wrong with that is that picture quality becomes the biggest issue in cinema. You never get to see the best version of the movie and instead get a cheap copy as your first impression. It’s like mastering in music. An album might be great as a high quality audio file, but as an MP3, it’s at its weakest form. Most downloads now arent even those weaker files even though it’s traditionally a very common type. Musicians, like filmmakers, want you to see or hear the highest quality version first so that any other version that appears will be reminiscent of this more powerful version. Home video was never like that, and still isn’t, as most DVD’s, Laser Discs, Blu Ray discs, and VHS tapes have a higher quality video format than most most modern streaming plug-ins. Basically, we’re getting ripped off with image quality and that’s why you see so many people whispering about 5k. Not that more pixel improvements is the answer as most beautiful films crackle and pop on Panavision 35mm, even when remastered. It’s part of the magic of movies.

After Shaun of the Dead was over, I did the same experiment with the Star Trek movie from 1979. The one where Kirk takes back the enterprise with Spock, Uhurra, and Sulu. Fucking classic stuff. But anyways, I noticed a very similar effect in the picture quality once again. On my DVD, it was crystal clear and deep. Those big epic shots of the Enterprise and Hyperspace were clean. All the black and gray tones were very rich and dark. Though about forty minutes into the movie, a similar thing happened and my cheap disc refused to play. So I went to Hulu and found another digital version online. While the movie is beautifully shot and the color pallette was preserved in the streaming version, I once again noticed that the darkness wasn’t as dark and rich like the DVD version. Due to these reasons, I worry about the effect films will have in a streaming setting. If color transfer is an issue, then what kind of aesthetics will look good? Will they all be blue, washed out films made by A24 and Netflix? I hardly think production design will be as imaginative or dynamic in this setting. Which is a big reason I love movies. So it’s safe to say I’m worried about imagination, creation, and the emotional “sell” of films in the future. Also, what movies would I have liked from this era that I didn’t pay attention to due to a bad copy? Is it really the tech or is it just us? Hard to say, but it’s a big reason I keep coming back.

One thing I do want to address from all this is that the home video market should not die just yet. For people who like owning physical media, higher quality versions of movies, or maybe just don’t wanna surf through their computer for a fucking hour just to find a movie they wanna watch. There’s a real luxury problem in most cities right now. Everything new has become marketed to money of a certain breed. Unfortunately, we can’t all afford those prices at experimental restaurants, and theater tickets are climbing in my own city of Los Angeles to an average of 20 dollars a person. By finding an affordable way for people to engage with the things they love to a higher quality, I believe, will kickstart an entire new generation of film appreciators and cultural admiration as a whole. After all, two for one deals are not about giving away product. It’s about creating a relationship with people so that they come back to support you for the right reasons. Quality always draws, but quantity often wins and I’m tired of that world.

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